One of the Braves' priorities this off-season was to replace defensive wizard Michael Bourn in center. Bourn is searching for a deal out of Atlanta's price range, but luckily for them, it's a buyer's market in 2012 thanks to a surprising number of center field options.
As Alex Speier pointed out at WEEI, there have been just four multi-year deals signed by center fielders over the last five seasons: Coco Crisp (two years, $14 million), Mike Cameron (two years, $15.5 million), Marlon Byrd (three years, $15 million), and Willy Taveras (two years, $6.25 million). Bourn was joined on the market this winter by Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, and B.J. Upton. Each of these players will likely receive a multi-year deal, and for more money than any of those who preceded them in the last five years, making 2012 a bit odd when it comes to free-agent center fielders.
Upton has already cashed in, inking a five-year, $75 million contract -- the average annual value alone beats all but Mike Cameron's total contract. It might seem like too much money for a player who, just last year, posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage. But there's more that goes into this deal than just that, both for Upton and the Braves.
The center field market isn't normally deep. Yes, there are plenty of options right now, but there's barely been anything to shop for over the last half-decade, and this current surplus features a few overly expensive options, or players with problems equal to or greater than those of Upton. As the youngest of the bunch, and a player who has never been quite as good as he was expected to be, Upton represents the option with perhaps the most potential relative to what he's accomplished.
Whether that's a fair assessment or not is up for debate, but it's how the Braves reportedly feel. Ken Rosenthal says as much in his column at Fox Sports:
The Braves' theory on Upton is that he faced too much pressure to produce in the weak Tampa Bay lineup, particularly last season when third baseman Evan Longoria appeared in only 74 games due to injury.
It's a plausible theory -- Upton wasn't going to see much to hit with Longoria out of a lineup that was already constructed based on its ability to play defense. It also helps this idea when you consider that Upton .252/.294/.584 from August 7 -- the day Longoria returned -- onward, mashing 18 homers and 33 extra-base his overall in the season's last 54 games. Then again, Upton has a tendency to be up-and-down anyway, so this could be a coincidence, too.
An American League scout likes Upton, but isn't sure that there's much more to him than what we've seen. "The talent is still pretty obvious and apparent. I think he'll still basically be Upton. Atlanta will get one great year, one horrible year, and three normal Upton years."
That aptly describes Upton's career to this point. He has six full seasons to his credit, and they play out at the same kind of ratio:
2007 is the one that sticks in everyone's mind when Upton's potential comes up. He hit for average, he hit for power, and he drew walks 12 percent of the time. While he's done each of those things individually since, he has yet to put them all together. The patience was there in 2008, the power in 2012, but he has yet to approach a .300 batting average again, or do two of these things within the same season.
That doesn't mean he hasn't been valuable. His defense has also had its share of better and worse campaigns. But he's very athletic, and at his best he's an excellent defender in center. Even if he's just a little better than average at the plate for three of those years -- as the AL scout predicts -- his glove should help make him more than just an average player. One worthy of the salary he's pulling in.
A change in venue should help, too. Tropicana Field is tough on both lefties and righties, and while Upton's home and road splits are fairly similar, it doesn't mean a friendlier home field for hitters won't benefit his production. He's shown the home run power to hit the ball out of parks that discourage that before, but this time around, he'll be in a stadium that boosts other types of extra-base hits.
The severe difference in how the two stadiums handle batting average on balls in play will also be apparent soon. Since 2010, when Upton hit just .237, the Trop has average BABIP of .278, .264, and .272. All three figures are well below the averages in those years (.295, .294, and .293), as well as far below what Turner Field churned out over the same stretch: .299, .294, and .300. This doesn't mean Upton is suddenly going to go all 2007 on everyone again, but his chances of escaping another .240 season are much better than they were. If he can retain last year's power, and hit around .265/.325/.475 or so, Atlanta will be very pleased.
Parks can have effects on a hitter outside of their home stadium as well, since a certain approach might be necessary to succeed at the locale played in the most. It's no guarantee, but Upton's road numbers might also see a boost if he can shake off the Trop from his game.
The Braves are likely right to bet on Upton improving despite already having 4,000 plate appearances to suggest otherwise, as he's never necessarily been in conditions that favored his game. The jump in production might not be massive, but Upton is already a pretty good -- and underrated -- center fielder. This is a move that is going to have worked out well for both sides when those five years are up, even if some of those years are worse than others.